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OBITUARIES : ROBERT FURMAN, 1915 - 2008

Spy chief for the Manhattan Project

October 25, 2008|Matt Schudel | Schudel writes for the Washington Post.

WASHINGTON — For more than 60 years, Robert Furman lived a quiet suburban life as a businessman with a successful building and contracting company.

The engineer had worked on a large construction project as a young man -- few people knew exactly how large -- and built the U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua and hundreds of other structures.

He was a president of the Rotary Club and the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase (Md.) Chamber of Commerce and sang baritone in barbershop quartets. He died Oct. 14 of metastatic melanoma at a retirement community in Adamstown, Md., at 93.

It was only in the past few years, as historians and scholars began to knock on his door, that Furman revealed the full extent of his achievements during World War II and his extraordinary life of intrigue.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, October 30, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Furman obituary: An obituary about engineer and Army intelligence agent Robert Furman in Saturday's California section said he was assigned to the Army's Quartermaster Corps. However, the article should have noted that, during the building of the Pentagon, he was reassigned to the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversaw the building's construction.

He was at the center of two of the most remarkable developments of the war: the building of the Pentagon and the development of the atomic bomb. Yet his roles as an engineer and as the point man in an international espionage operation were cloaked in such secrecy that his name did not appear in official documents for decades.

"You could never imagine a man who was more secretive by nature," said Thomas Powers, a historian who first met Furman in the late 1980s when he was working on "Heisenberg's War," a book about German bomb-building efforts in World War II. "He was the guy who actually handled all this stuff. He was extremely young, and he had extraordinary power."

Robert Ralph Furman, born Aug. 21, 1915, in Trenton, N.J., graduated from Princeton University in 1937 with a degree in civil engineering, eventually working for Turner Construction Co. in New York.

A member of the Army Reserve, Furman was activated in December 1940 and assigned to the Washington headquarters of the Quartermaster Corps Construction Division. He was named executive officer to Clarence Renshaw, a captain in charge of construction of a new War Department office building just across the Potomac River from Washington. Furman had a desk outside the office of then-Col. Leslie Groves, Renshaw's boss.

Furman, then a lieutenant, became a key figure in the day-to-day construction operation that began in September 1941. With 13,000 workers toiling round-the-clock, the enormous five-sided building went up quickly. Furman supervised everything from materials to manpower, even dealing with illicit alcohol sales on the night shift. Every fifth day, he was on overnight duty, making a circuit of the entire building on foot.

The Pentagon was completed in 17 months, and in mid-1943, Furman was ready for a new assignment. Groves had been promoted to general and was in charge of the top-secret Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb. He picked the young Furman, now a major, as his chief of intelligence.

"Groves told Furman that he would be responsible for finding out what the Germans were doing and for working with the scientists," historian Robert S. Norris wrote in his 2002 biography of Groves, "Racing for the Bomb."

On his frequent visits to the secret U.S. research site in Los Alamos, N.M., Furman met nuclear scientists Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe. When Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr was smuggled out of Denmark late in 1943, Furman was his personal handler and quizzed him about German research efforts.

When a long-shot plan to kidnap Werner Heisenberg, Germany's leading physicist, failed, a new spy was brought into the picture and assigned to Furman. Morris "Moe" Berg was a Princeton graduate with a law degree from Columbia University who was fluent in seven languages. He had played 15 years in the major leagues as a catcher with several teams and had taken secret films of Tokyo while on a baseball tour in the 1930s. The films were used to guide American bombers during World War II.

By 1944, Berg had been retired from baseball for five years. He made his way through liberated and neutral parts of Europe, keeping Furman informed of his meetings with scientists across the continent. Furman frequently went to Europe himself, meeting Berg and future CIA chief Allen Dulles on undercover missions. He often wore cheap French suits to remain inconspicuous.

Groves decided that all the uranium in Europe should be in Allied hands -- even uranium stored near the front lines -- and chose Furman to find it. Sometimes under fire from German snipers, Furman recovered vast stores of the element needed for nuclear fission.

When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, Furman was in charge of rounding up Germany's top scientists. U.S. forces quickly detained Heisenberg and nine other scientists and spirited them to England, where they could not defect to the Soviet Union.

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